By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 13, 2007
A lawyer for the Republican National Committee told congressional staff members yesterday that the RNC is missing at least four years' worth of e-mail from White House senior adviser Karl Rove that is being sought as part of investigations into the Bush administration, according to the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
GOP officials took issue with Rep. Henry Waxman's account of the briefing and said they still hope to find the e-mail as they conduct forensic work on their computer equipment. But they acknowledged that they took action to prevent Rove -- and Rove alone among the two dozen or so White House officials with RNC accounts -- from deleting his e-mails from the RNC server. Waxman (D-Calif.) said he was told the RNC made that move in 2005.
In a letter to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Waxman said the RNC lawyer, Rob Kelner, also raised the possibility that Rove had personally deleted the missing e-mails, all dating back to before 2005. GOP officials said Kelner was merely speaking hypothetically about why e-mail might be missing for any staffer and not referring to Rove in particular.
The disclosures helped fan the controversy over what the White House has acknowledged to be the improper use of political e-mail accounts to conduct official government business.
Democrats are suspicious that Rove and other senior officials were using the political accounts, set up by the RNC, to avoid scrutiny from Congress. E-mails already in the public record suggest that at least some White House officials were mindful of a need not to discuss certain matters within the official White House e-mail system.
Yesterday, congressional Democrats denounced the White House after administration officials acknowledged this week that e-mails dealing with official government business, including the firing of U.S. attorneys, may have been lost because they were improperly sent through political messaging accounts. Twenty-two White House officials -- and a total of about 50 over the course of the administration -- have been given such accounts to avoid doing political work on government equipment.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, accused the White House of lying about the matter. He was joined by the ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), in calling on the White House to join Congress in setting up a "fair and objective process for investigating this matter."
"You can't erase e-mails, not today," Leahy said in an angry speech on the Senate floor. "They've gone through too many servers. Those e-mails are there -- they just don't want to produce them. It's like the infamous 18-minute gap in the Nixon White House tapes."
White House officials rejected that explanation. "What we have done has been forthcoming, honest," spokeswoman Dana Perino said. "We are trying to understand to the best of our ability the universe of the e-mails that were potentially lost, and we are taking steps to make sure that we use the forensics that are available to retrieve any of those that are lost."
The disclosures came as White House counsel Fred F. Fielding rejected demands for a compromise on providing testimony and records to Congress related to the prosecutor firings. In a letter to the heads of the House and Senate Judiciary committees, Fielding said the White House is standing firm with its "unified offer," which would include providing a limited set of documents. The White House has proposed allowing Rove and other aides to be interviewed privately, without a transcript and not under oath.
Fielding also wrote that it "remains our intention to collect e-mails and documents" from the RNC and other outside accounts used by White House officials. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved, but did not issue, new subpoenas for the Justice Department yesterday.
Gonzales, meanwhile, has been preparing for a pivotal appearance on Tuesday before the committee, including mock testimony sessions lasting up to five hours a day, officials said.
E-mails from Rove and other White House officials potentially figure in a number of congressional investigations. Democrats are seeking the RNC e-mails as part of an effort to determine the extent of Rove's role in firing the U.S. attorneys and the alleged politicization at the General Services Administration.
The RNC yesterday turned over to the White House a copy of e-mail records for administration officials still on the RNC server to determine whether any of them are privileged or whether they can be provided to congressional investigators. Officials indicated that they would include post-2005 e-mails from Rove.
GOP officials said they are also trying to determine whether they can recover other e-mail that may have been deleted through regular purges of e-mails or by deliberate deletion by White House staff. Waxman said the RNC indicated that it had destroyed all e-mail records from White House officials in 2001, 2002 and 2003.
In 2004, the RNC exempted White House officials from its policy of purging all e-mail after 30 days, so any lost e-mail after that date would have been presumably deleted by a White House official.
"We do not know what exists pre-2005 -- we are in the process of trying to determine what, if anything, does," RNC spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said. Another GOP official familiar with the inner workings of the RNC said officials have no evidence that Rove had deliberately deleted any e-mail. Kelner referred calls to the RNC, and the White House said Rove was not available to comment.
Republican officials also said there was nothing nefarious in their decision to take precautions to preserve Rove's e-mail. According to Waxman, Kelner told his staff that the RNC commenced a program in 2005 that took away Rove's ability to personally delete his e-mails. GOP officials said that was done only to preserve records for possible use in legal settings, not out of any concern that Rove would seek to scrub his e-mail account.
Erasing an e-mail message beyond hope of retrieval is not easy, experts said.
In general, deleting any file on a computer does not make it go away, because the computer normally will erase not the file but rather its own records of it. "The data is not gone until it is overwritten," said John Christopher, senior data-recovery engineer at Novato, Calif.-based DriveSavers. The "deleted" file will remain on the hard drive, where it can still be found and read until other data are saved to the same spot.
The same thing happens with e-mail: Trashing a message only means that the mail program clears its records of where it had filed that e-mail in its own database.
Paul Robichaux, a principal with the Redmond, Wash., technology services firm 3Sharp and the author of three books about Microsoft's e-mail software, compared it to a library that removes the entry for a book from its card catalogue: "The book is still on the shelf."
Staff writers Dan Eggen and Rob Pegoraro and washingtonpost.com staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.